Now is the opportune moment to challenge environmentalist orthodoxy. With the European Union on the verge of taking legal action to rein in its member states, the British government must do something. The optimal course of action is to put aside state-imposed regulations, which often compound the problem, and embrace the long overdue free-market approach.
Even with Brexit on the horizon, the European Court of Justice is looking to prosecute the UK government over the levels of pollution in the country, being far higher than EU limits. A final warning has been issued, with non-compliance likely entailing a lump sum or daily fines.
There is reason to be concerned about Britain’s pollution levels. Recent research reveals that eight and nine-year-olds living across east London, due to high levels of airborne pollutants, have up to 10 per cent less lung capacity than normal. The study, from Asthma UK Centre and the Medical Research Council, found a direct correlation between air pollutant exposure and reduced lung growth. The tests checked the volume of air each child could breathe, as well as levels of inflammation in their lungs, and included urine tests to check for heavy metals produced by vehicles.
The study was designed to assess the impact of London’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ), launched in 2008. Its purpose was to discourage larger diesel vehicles, such as lorries, from entering the capital through imposition of a charge. However, this research found that the measure has completely failed in achieving its objectives of reducing pollution and improving public health. “It is very disappointing that the LEZ, which was specifically designed as a major public health intervention, has so far brought about no change,” said Professor Griffiths, who led the study.
We can also look at this problem with a wider lens. Back in 2014, a government report claimed, “Mortality attributable to long-term exposure to current levels of anthropogenic particulate air pollution range from around 2.5% in some local authorities in rural areas…to over 8% in some of the most polluted London boroughs.” According to more recent estimates, from Public Health England, 29,000 early deaths per year, in the UK, are the result of inhaling tiny particles of unburnt soot known as particulate matter. A further 23,500 deaths are thought to be caused by the other key dangerous pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, bringing the total annual death toll to 52,500.
Unfortunately we don’t have access to more concrete data on this rather alarming issue. Death certificates won’t indicate diesel fumes as the cause of death, but rather respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.
The mainstream response in the face of market failure is for the state to intervene. Already we hear the advocates of such policies loading their regulatory silver bullet into the chamber. And we know what form it takes. The government hands out pollution permits, implicitly sanctioning any contamination as long as it is below a certain threshold. The UK Environment Agency (EA) controls some potential statutory nuisances like noise, smells and dust with environmental permits, as part of pollution control.
Local Councils can serve abatement notices to combat commission of a statutory nuisance but if a facility has an environmental permit, councils must obtain the Secretary of State’s permission before prosecuting for breach of an abatement notice.
Even though the core problem is damage to the health and property of individual citizens, if the polluter is complying with all the relevant regulations and is within the guidelines of their permit, then the suffering locals will just have to put up with it.
Despite the intentions of some well-meaning officials, state intervention in the market often fails to tackle the real problem. Recall how the UK’s previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, pledged £1.3 billion of tax breaks, investment, and other support for the oil industry with particular focus on production in the North Sea. Moreover, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the Treasury will give a total £4.8 billion in rebates to oil and gas companies between 2015 and 2021.
Then, to combat forking out billions to prop up the oil industry, environmentalists petition the government for their own special subsidies.
As of the 2017 spending budget, the UK government has pledged to provide £290 million to support electric vehicles and alternative fuels. The battle between powerful oil interests and the green brigade of environmental lobbyists seems to be centered on who should receive the most government freebies.
Towards a Solution
The remedy to our pollution problem is to move away from the corporate welfare we see in the energy sector and instead turn our efforts to properly defending the individual’s rights to person and property.
In the case of pollution, the offending party sends substances like sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, smoke, and soot through the air to be inhaled by innocent victims or to land on their private property. The polluter has no less aggressed against the victim than if they had dumped slurry on their lawn.
Simply put, any emission or discharge that injures a person or damages their property ought to constitute a violation of the rights of the person in question.
Consequently, if pollutants produced by a factory drift through the air, beyond the boundaries of that factory’s property, then the neighbouring landowner (let’s call him Bob) has grounds for a lawsuit. The factory-owner and Bob need to come to some agreement regarding the level of pollution that is mutually acceptable.
But what if Bob does nothing to contain the fumes and allows them to drift across onto someone else’s property (call this person Kate)? Well, this too would be an offence. Pollutants crossing property boundaries would make one party liable to the other for damages. The owner of polluted property, Bob, must control this pollution and prevent it from invading Kate’s property.
So Bob clearly must either:
1) Clean up the pollutants on within his property before they drift across to Kate’s.
2) Pay Kate compensation for the harmful substances drifting through the air into her property.
3) Sue the factory to prevent the pollution from leaving the factory boundaries in the first place or obtain compensation from them to offset the costs that Bob has incurred. This system would generally encourage people to keep pollutants under control so as to avoid lawsuits from the surrounding landowners.
Initially the technology for pollution detection would not be widely available. But when people realize that they can sue polluters, preventing further violation of their rights and gaining compensation for damages, they have a reason to seek out and purchase such technology. Thus other people, innovators and entrepreneurs, have strong incentives to provide these products for concerned citizens to purchase.
To anticipate the question of motor vehicle pollution, clearly it is neither practical nor desirable to track down and sue each individual motorist for driving their car past your house or business. The victim of pollution would instead be able to sue the road owner for the toxic fumes emanating from the road onto their property.
The road owner would of course wish to avoid legal action. Thus he might wish to offer monetary compensation to the residents or businesses that border his road. If they find this acceptable, he will pass the cost on to motorists in the form of increased user fees.
He is likely also to enact anti-pollution measures. This could involve restricting usage to those motorists whose vehicles emit below a certain threshold of pollutants, or offering discounted rates for cleaner vehicles. The response from motorists wishing to use his road would be either to upgrade their cars to comply with the rules imposed by the road-owner or to purchase new non-polluting cars (electric for example).
Many companies already manufacture hybrid or electric vehicles. They would of course be free to build and sell any polluting car they desire. The point is that consumers would be far less likely to purchase such vehicles if road owners won’t let them drive these cars without paying incredibly high user fees (or some owners banning them outright).
Currently the little guy pays for it all, with his taxes and his health. But if individual rights to person and property were fully defended, rather than descending into some ‘hellhole of capitalist greed’, we would see a flourishing free market – environmental protection coupled with enterprise and technology.
* James Bladgen is a history enthusiast, recent philosophy graduate, and advocate of Classical Liberalism